Blu-ray Review: Strange Wilderness (2008)

Now Available on Blu-ray

Also Available on DVD

You have to be a fan of actor Steve Zahn to be able to appreciate the loony mayhem that is director Fred Wolf’s Strange Wilderness. Fortunately, this is one prerequisite that I’ve aced ever since I witnessed my fellow Minnesota native initially playing the sweet, closeted Reality Bites character amidst a terrific ensemble of actors in Ben Stiller’s directorial work.

Balancing out blockbusters with indie films, he followed this up with more great little-seen turns over the years (Safe Men, Happy, Texas), but it wasn't until he finally stole the spotlight away from such larger-than-life celebrity presences as Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, and Don Cheadle, first in Hanks’ underrated, sunny ‘60s feel-great musical comedy That Thing You Do! before he brought a bizarre mixture of humor and pathos to his small time hoodlum turn in Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant Out of Sight that people started to pay attention in a bigger way.

Although unfortunately, despite some truly memorable and instantly quotable laugh-out-loud moments in this film penned by Fred Wolf and Peter Gaulke that finds Zahn starring as the inept son who’s inherited his deceased Jack Hanna-like father’s nature television series, Strange Wilderness loses its way shortly after the characters hit the road in a series of escalating, tired, gross out, and cliched “outsiders on a journey” gags.

And despite the fact that only a third of the way into the roughly 90 minute movie, most viewers will feel like channel flipping as though they've stumbled onto the movie on television and moreover feel the strange sense they’ve seen it all before in countless other Happy Madison productions from executive producer Adam Sandler-- the main reason that the film succeeds at all (in the precious few times that it does) and what kept me watching for its entire running time was none other than Steve Zahn.

Coming right off of an impressive dramatic portrayal in Werner Herzog’s acclaimed Vietnam-set biopic Rescue Dawn co-starring Christian Bale, Zahn is instantly believable in familiar comedy mode as the fictitious version of Peter Gaulke.

The ill-prepared host of the now laughably awful series a three a.m. time slot-- Gaulke’s show is just weeks away from justifiable and long overdue cancellation by network executive Jeff Garlin. So in one last ditch attempt to bring back the viewers and make his father proud, Zahn leads his group of even more clueless staffers (including Allen Covert, Jonah Hill and Justin Long) on a journey to find Bigfoot by traveling down into central America.

Of course, we know they're completely unprepared for the dangers that face them given the group's prior tendency to prep for shows with voice-overs written on bar napkins, nonsensical and erroneous “facts” and pseudo-intellectual observations like “it is estimated that the faster a shark swims, the more distance he covers in a given period of time,” and enlisting crew members to don animal costumes to horrific results. And sure enough, it isn’t long before they’re flat broke and find themselves truly trying to survive in some very “strange” wilderness indeed.

A few years following the success of the movie’s origins as comedic shorts from Wolf and Gaulke via an independently produced series of short video “parodies of wildlife shows… which [were] eventually [aired] on Comedy Central,” former Saturday Night Live writers, stand-up comics and TV writers Gaulke and Wolf decided to turn that idea into a feature length work.

Kick-starting their ambition to see it as a movie by crafting their own version of it on video for potential financiers-- Wolf acknowledges that time and again they encountered “a lot of people interested in making it into a TV show… until Adam Sandler and his producing partner Jack Giarraputo read the script.”

With the blessing of Happy Madison Productions and Sandler’s name enabling them to attract some top-notch talent including Ernest Borgnine (in an inspired casting decision made after seeing him on SpongeBob SquarePants), soon the film was set into motion. And while one can’t argue with some of the incredible performers involved like the always-welcome Justin Long as the perpetually stoned, creepily tattooed new crew member and fun cameos with Robert Patrick and Joe Don Baker—- not to long after the movie's incredibly addictive and wholly original set-up-- the film's tone is destroyed by excess.

Namely in unsuccessfully trying to juggle so many different characters (including a bizarre and overdone turn by Jonah Hill that grates on the nerves within seconds) and an increasing over-reliance on disgusting sight gags-- soon the great premise about the dim-witted host is left by the wayside in lieu of sequences involving animals attacking our lead in the privates and-- I'm not kidding-- an entire conversation centering on the fact that a character's name is Dick.

And overall, Wilderness is a movie that holds our interest for the first portion as we see some of the characters in action creating what has to be the worst animal show ever captured on film-- making the screenwriters’ initial feedback that it would’ve probably worked best as a television show seem especially true in hindsight.

With a great deal of enthusiasm, the actors all try their hardest but sadly, there’s not much to like about a film that alienates more viewers with each successive scene that goes for laughs in the crudest possible manner, forgetting just what made the first act so damn funny to begin with.

Typically for the format, the Blu-ray quality of the 2008 work is quite impressive given the stellar sound and heightened depth perception, however since it was purposely filmed to visually hearken back to 1970s wildlife shows, it’s not a great improvement over the DVD so those who already own it may want to skip the upgrade.

Containing some extra features that relish in the repulsion of the infamous “turkey scene,” Jonah Hill’s bizarre Eddie Vedder modeled song performed alongside Justin Long, a veritable press kit extra on the film just added onto the disc and deleted scenes—the sole standout that shows exactly what the cast is capable of is titled “What Do We Do?” which finds Zahn, Long, Hill, Covert, and Borgnine all riffing in a hilarious exchange about Jack Nicholson, Nell Carter, and others.

As they improvise and challenge one another to be funnier, you can sense Long’s polite discomfort as he apologetically blames his crude outbursts on his character rather than himself (while seated next to the legendary Borgnine) but it’s a great example of just putting a bunch of creative and comically gifted people in a room together and letting them rip.

Likewise, it’s a terrific indication that—instead of the gross-out gags and over-the-top effects-- if Gaulke and Wolf would’ve done more scenes like the one featured in this extra over the course of the film, perhaps they’d be sitting with a much more successful and far less formulaic Happy Madison Production that’s memorable for something other than just simply marveling at the next ridiculous nature observation to be uttered by Zahn’s host.